Ministers are contemplating introducing tough travel restrictions – of the kind that have been in force since last March in Asia and Australasia.
These are the key questions and answers.
Surely no one should be travelling?
No leisure travel is allowed for anyone living in the UK, but some of the people coming in left the country before the third lockdown started on 5 January and have been on long-stay trips – whether holidays or staying with family or partners they had not seen for months. People who have been staying in a second property abroad are at liberty to return.
Some arrivals are travelling home to the UK for compassionate reason, for example if a member of their family is dangerously ill.
A few “lost souls” are still returning to their families and homes in the UK after spending time abroad – often prolonged by lockdown measures in the location in which they were staying.
Business travel is continuing, mainly comprising professionals working in specialist fields such as medicine, media or the oil industry. Some business leaders running multinational concerns are travelling, but there are very few executives visiting customers or suppliers.
What new restrictions could there be?
“We are continuing to monitor Covid-19 rates and new strains of the virus across the globe, this alongside the suspension of travel corridors and pre-departure testing will help protect our borders,” said the transport secretary, Grant Shapps.
The UK now insists on all arrivals presenting a negative test for coronavirus that has been taken within three days of departure (or longer if an en route stop is involved).
Quarantine is also mandatory for all overseas arrivals except for those from Ireland.
But ministers are considering much tougher and wide-ranging rules for arriving passengers in a bid to limit the spread of new variants of coronavirus – including arrivals self-isolating in designated hotels, rather than at home.
A brief history of quarantine
Early in 2020, the UK imposed quarantine measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus from known hotspots including China, Iran and northern Italy. On 13 March 2020 these measures ended. The government said there was no point in continuing to insist on self-isolation because coronavirus was widespread in the UK.
Two days later, Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, imposed two weeks of self-isolation on arrivals from all countries. By the end of March, the law had been strengthened to make “hotel quarantine” mandatory.
Three months later, on 8 June 2020, the UK government made a U-turn, going from no quarantine to quarantine from everywhere, with 14 days of self-isolation required.
A month after that, the concept of “travel corridors” took effect, allowing journeys from most European countries without self-isolation. But by late July Spain had lost exemption, and in the months since then most popular destinations have also had quarantine-free status removed.
In December, the time required for quarantine was reduced from 14 to 10 days, and in England “test to release” was brought in – allowing self-isolation to be halved for those who received a negative test result on day five.
On 18 January 2021, all quarantine exemptions were removed.
How does the system work for arrivals?
At present anyone arriving in the UK is free to take public transport home and stay there for 10 days (which can be reduced in England with a test taken after five days). If necessary, they can stay somewhere overnight on the way to their quarantine location.
Hotels are provided for arrivals from abroad who do not have a household with whom they can self-isolate, but there is no significant supervision.
Of the 12 million arrivals to England since June 2020, 3 per cent (about 400,000) have been checked upon by public health staff to ensure they are quarantining, Mr Shapps has said. The transport secretary added that checks are being increased.
How would “hotel quarantine” work?
Australia, New Zealand and many Asian nations have imposed hotel quarantine since March 2020. The standard arrangement is for the traveller to be escorted from the airport terminal to a nearby hotel.
They have a number of conditions imposed, usually stipulating that they are not allowed to leave their room – though in some cases limited exercise opportunities are available at specific times.
Meals are delivered to the hotel room. In some cases, alcohol is available, but in many settings it is not.
Security guards are often deployed to try to ensure that quarantinees comply with the rules, and in some destinations hefty fines are levied for those caught breaking them.
Keith Legg went through quarantine in China. “Randomly allocated a hotel,” he reports. “Ours were OK, but others less so.
“Three meals per day provided, not allowed to order in from outside (though this changed). Alcohol not allowed, though we could bring some with us on arrival.
“Doctors on site: test on arrival, after seven days and on day 13 for departure. Temperature raised for any reason? Off to hospital.
“Released after exactly 14 days (to the minute!).”
Cambodia has a particularly intriguing variation on the theme, with mandatory testing on touchdown. All arrivals must pay US$30 (£22) for an overnight stay at hotel or waiting centre and the same again for three meals a day while waiting for test result.
“If one passenger tests positive for Covid-19, all those on the same flight will be quarantined for 14 days,” says the Foreign Office.
The cost is US$1,176 (£863) to pay for the stay in a hotel or quarantine facility – but this includes meals, laundry, sanitary services, doctors and security services.
What exactly would Australian-style quarantine be like?
Border officials board the plane on arrival to give instructions. Passengers are escorted through the airport, including a health screen process, and taken to a “quarantine facility” of the government’s choice.“
“You will need to stay in your allocated room for 14 days and you won’t be able to have visitors,” says the Australian government. “Access to a balcony or open window can’t be guaranteed. You will be given three meals per day.
“Bring physical books or download movies ahead of time in case there are issues with the hotel Wi-Fi.
“Staff will not be able to enter or clean your room for you.
“You won’t be able to smoke in your room. This may mean you won’t be able to smoke for the duration of your quarantine stay.”
Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, who himself was obliged to self-isolate on return from the Middle East to Australia in March 2020, warns: “You can’t bring your own booze for your 14-day stay. The hotel will charge you minibar prices for anything you drink.”
Could it work in the UK?
Currently there are sufficient empty hotel rooms. The swathe of restrictions, from a ban on leisure travel for all UK residents to the blanket quarantine requirement, means that total daily arrivals to the UK are down from tens of thousands at the start of the year to a few thousand.
Heathrow, the main access point to the UK, is surrounded by hotels, almost all of which are near-empty or closed due to lack of custom.
Other airports also have plenty of hotel capacity, with occupancy typically down to single-figure percentages.
Dover and Folkestone have plenty of hotels near the port and Eurotunnel terminal respectively. London St Pancras, the arrival point for Eurostar, has a hotel at the station and many more very close in the centre of the capital.
It may be that only arrivals from certain locations, such as southern Africa and South America, will be obliged to undergo hotel quarantine.
The traveller. A rough estimate of the cost is around £1,500 for 10 days in self isolation. For couples together it would probably be less, perhaps £2,000 for two.
The test-to-release scheme, which reduces quarantine in England, is likely to be suspended just weeks after it was introduced, so there is no prospect of saving by reducing the time in self-isolation.
The cost of providing security may be met by the government.
How soon could it take effect?
There has been plenty of time for officials here to study the concept and plan for the introduction of hotel quarantine, so it could be here within days.
But experience during the coronavirus pandemic shows there may be no great rush to bring it in. The trajectory as used for blanket quarantine last June and test-to-release in December, is roughly as follows. Day one: leaks to friendly publications. Days two to seven: ministers saying it could happen. Day eight: an actual announcement, with the measure taking effect a week or two later.
I predict the measure will take effect on Friday 5 or Monday 8 February.
When might it end?
Some government sources have said hotel quarantine will last for six to eight weeks. That indicates an end point in late March or early April, though previous policies have been eased much sooner; blanket quarantine lasted only 33 days.
The UK travel industry, which sees hotel quarantine as the final straw, desperately hopes it will end by the Easter long weekend: 2-5 April 2021.
Any other measures?
Yes. Twenty-nine countries are on the government’s so-called travel ban list. This is actually a flight ban, aimed at limiting the spread of new variants of coronavirus.
Direct flights are not allowed from 11 African nations (Tanzania, Democratic Congo, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Eswatini, Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique and Angola).
Flights from three island nations off the coast of Africa – Cape Verde, Mauritius and the Seychelles – have been banned. In normal times they are popular holiday destinations with direct flights from the UK.
The entire continent of South America, as well as Panama, is on the list – adding 15 more countries.
The most significant nation, though, in terms of British visitors and expatriates, is Portugal. At present it is the only European country subject to a flight ban.
Some additional restrictions apply to passengers on connecting flights to the UK: British and Irish citizens, as well as third-country nationals with residential rights in the UK, can come in whenever they like but must self-isolate along with their households for 10 days.
Other travellers cannot arrive in the UK if they have been in any of the “banned” countries within the past 10 days
Ministers are also considering tracking the phones of arriving travellers, to ensure they are complying with the rules, or establishing a system of daily registration with a central data base.
Why not just close the airports?
Closing Heathrow, Manchester and other UK airports to passenger traffic could be mandated by the government. But It would cause immense problems for the very few people who are travelling at the moment, and ultimately is unlikely to do any good.
The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, revealed earlier this month that only one in 1,000 of the coronavirus cases in England in December was brought in from abroad – and that was a month with plenty of people travelling, including 1.1 million through Heathrow.
Today the figure is likely to be far lower, due to the diminishing number of arrivals to the UK.